Let me take you back to another time; a world where the police, the military, the schools, the libraries, the hospitals, the stores, all of this infrastructure we enjoy today — is gone. No government, no television. Most of all, no cars. No cell phones. No oil. A world without guns and swords. This isn’t post apocalyptic fiction. This isn’t dystopia. Once upon a time, this was the real world. Once upon a time, this was the Dark Age.
You might wonder why we should bother going back this far — what it has to do with writing. But it has everything to do with how you pull a sword from the stone.
It’s a familiar story that came out of that age. The knights, King Arthur, Merlin. The boy who would be king, rising up to the challenge of pulling an enchanted sword from an immovable stone, a feat of strength that would cement his divine right to rule.
It’s a strange story, with numerous variations. Monty Python put it best when they said “Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” And while they were discussing the Lady of the Lake determining Arthur’s divine right to rule, the point is the same — random allotment of swords don’t exactly prove you’re capable of leading nations.
Or do they.
It was never about a literal sword in the stone. It was about technology and wisdom and warfare. A soldier carrying a gun can take over any town, a show of brute strength is no mean feat. It’s common. It’s unsophisticated, and it only lasts for so long.
It’s the person who knows how to build a gun from scratch — that’s true power, power intrinsic to creation, not destruction. The technology, the alchemy, and the application of skill — these are things that make Queens of mere women, Kings of mere men, and Gods of mere mortals. This — this is what we’re talking about, when we talk about pulling the sword from the stone.
You need stone, to smelt iron. You need iron, to make steel. You need steel, to make swords.
When they say Arthur pulled a sword from the stone, what lies behind the phrase is a more arduous task than we are led to believe: he took raw earth, and made the fire, and spent days baking it in an earth oven so the rock would crack, release the metal and melt it down. Separate the impurities. Take what remained and begin to shape and hammer it out. Heat and cool it endlessly. It took wisdom lost in the fall of Rome. It took knowledge lost with the death of millions in that fall; it took skills lost in the burning of Alexandria. Over time, the story twists. It’s lost in translation. Between the words of ancient texts, we trade in a hard and gritty reality for a convenient fantasy, in which one man’s hard labor that cost him weeks and months if not years of his life, is casually discarded for a fast-food version of the myth. To say the words “pull the sword from the stone” takes five seconds. It gives no respect for the time it took to make a sword from scratch.
By now, the writers reading this will have already figured it out; they think I’m talking about the creative process. And you can draw all the suitable parallels you please. But that’s only half the truth.
We live in a publishing, writing system that doesn’t allow you to pull swords from stones. The writing process alone is but the first part; before our typewriters and keyboards, we’re busy smelting. We aren’t even close to swords yet, not even close to turning our raw materials into a real weapon. Down the line, we’ll shape and hammer with agents, editors, publishers. The sword is what they sell in the storefronts.
Writers. You have no power. Anyone can smelt. It’s not easy; but it can be done. This is the first of many tests that await you, and the vast majority will not pass this.
Not every writer will, like Arthur, smelt and shape and hammer and sell the sword alone. Not every writer will demonstrate the application and holistic understanding of all the technology and discipline involved in the production and process of this singular, and indispensable weapon.
The one who does, will earn their sovereignty over the rest.
You will be more than a writer. You will be an alchemist, a metalsmith, a sword maker. You will know fire and metal, earth and water. You will know the wisdom that has been forgotten. Are you ready, writers?
The stuff of legends await you. You need only pull your sword from the stone.
It is as simple, and insurmountable as that.
For my mother, a metalsmith herself, and a firebrand.